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Bill Simmons is leaving ESPN

Sports writer Bill Simmons speaks at the 2010 New Yorker Festival at DGA Theater on October 2, 2010 in New York City.
Sports writer Bill Simmons speaks at the 2010 New Yorker Festival at DGA Theater on October 2, 2010 in New York City.
Amy Sussman/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Bill Simmons is leaving ESPN, the New York Times reports:

"I’ve decided that I’m not going to renew his contract," ESPN president John Skipper told the Times' Richard Sandomir. "We’ve been talking to Bill and his agent, and it was clear we weren’t going to get to the terms, so we were better off focusing on transition."

Skipper expanded on that thought in an official statement posted on the ESPN Front Row website:

ESPN’s relationship with Bill has been mutually beneficial — he has produced great content for us for many years and ESPN has provided him many new opportunities to spread his wings. We wish Bill continued success as he plans his next chapter. ESPN remains committed to Grantland and we have a strong team in place.

Skipper also told the Times that talks with Simmons fell apart over more than money. Simmons was suspended from the network in the fall of 2014, after a podcast tirade against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. And Deadspin reported exhaustively on the crumbling relationship between Simmons and ESPN.

Simmons's contract expires in the fall, and he will exit ESPN at that time. He first wrote for the network's website in 2001 and quickly became one of its most prominent personalities. His fan-centric brand of sports commentary grew to be the predominant form of internet sportswriting for much of the last decade.

Simmons was also instrumental in developing the website Grantland, which has become a major force in longform writing on both sports and pop culture, and in developing the sports documentary series 30 for 30, which has won both a Peabody and an Emmy.

Why Simmons matters

Obviously, Bill Simmons's career is not over. Now that he's a free agent, he'll almost certainly entertain offers from many other media corporations and find somewhere else to share his thoughts. If one thing has become abundantly clear from reading Simmons over the years, it's that there's nothing he loves more than sharing his opinions on the internet — and he would be doing that whether he had a major media platform or a blog on Wordpress.

But Simmons does have a major media platform on which to present his thoughts. His work at ESPN and later Grantland (published by ESPN) has solidified him as one of the most influential writers in internet publishing history. Initially hired by ESPN as a freelancer, he quickly climbed the ranks of the network's writers to become one of the biggest voices on the site. (Full disclosure: I have written several pieces for Grantland in the past but have never met or spoken with Simmons.)

Simmons was passionate, funny, easily distracted by pop culture tangents, and devoted to Boston sports teams above all else. He turned his family and friends into recurring characters in his work, and he wasn't ashamed of openly rooting for certain teams or players. His sportswriting erased the line between objectivity and subjectivity — showing that a writer could still offer solid analysis or reporting while owning up to their own biases.

And if you think that sounds a lot like what would come to be known as blogging, you're not entirely wrong. Simmons's voice isn't usually included when discussing the prehistory of blogging, but it probably should be. His tone spread throughout the internet, and it was soon being adopted for everything from news to politics to (especially) pop culture.

More importantly, though, Simmons also realized that his sports column would only stay the exciting new thing for so long. He would have to diversify, something he began doing almost immediately. He wrote for a time on the late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live, and he helped launch 30 for 30 as part of ESPN's 30th anniversary celebration in 2009. He also became an on-air personality for the network. All of these moves were built toward taking Simmons from a columnist to a larger media personality and even a brand.

Which is how he was so successful in launching Grantland.

Why Grantland matters

If Simmons was important to the prehistory of blogging, then he was also important to what came next — the era when major media companies put money behind the most successful bloggers running publications of their own, publications like The Intercept, ESPN's Five Thirty Eight, and, yes, Vox.

Launched in 2011 with a dream team of writers, Grantland showed that Simmons had a good deal of editorial savvy to go along with his writing skills. One of the most important things any editor can know is what they don't know, and in every single hire for that initial Grantland team, Simmons was shoring up some particular area where his lack of expertise might show. He was, in other words, building a site where he could be a marquee name, but not the only one.

Grantland isn't the internet's most widely read site, but it's an incredibly influential and important one. It launched at a time when the idea of longform internet journalism was starting to take hold, and it executed such writing really, really well. Its pop cultural criticism was passionate and funny, eschewing the snark that passed for commentary on a lot of other sites at the time, and its sports journalism was agreeably wonky, pulling out obscure statistics to prove its point. But the site also published terrific profiles and reported features, human interest stories that never once pretended they were somehow less important than hard news.

The future of Grantland without Simmons is unclear. ESPN seems committed to continuing to publish the site, but losing an editor in chief and founder is devastating for any publication. However, if the site soldiers on, it will be because of what Skipper said in his statement — Simmons has built it into something that can stand on its own.

And assuming Grantland does survive and does continue to influence other publications throughout the internet, that will be as good a testament to his talents as anything else. Building your own career is one thing. Building a site that functions as long as you're around is another. But building something that can exist without you there is an achievement.

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